The Glass Ceiling
Does the glass ceiling—the invisible barrier that bars people from the top professional ranks—still apply to women? The End of Men author Hanna Rosin says no, arguing that as women now constitute the majority of college graduates, they have begun to dominate the professional and managerial levels. Yet women still hold only about 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, and in many fields the glass remains unshattered.
Like many American women of her generation, Phyllis Schlafly contributed to World War II efforts by working in a munitions plant. But unlike most of them, who willingly or unwillingly returned to domestic life after the war, Schlafly continued to work outside the home. As a researcher, political campaign manager and activist credited with stopping the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, she has spread the antifeminist message that women shouldn’t try to have it all (all referring to both family and career). Ironically, Schlafly was married and raised six children while managing a successful political career and seems to be one of those who actually did have it all.
Schlafly must have been “superhuman, rich or self-employed”—at least according to Anne-Marie Slaughter. In a widely read and discussed Atlantic magazine article, Slaughter insists most women still can’t have it all, citing her own inability to juggle family and career comfortably in her high-powered job at the U.S. Department of State. Although Slaughter may seem to echo Schlafly, she argues from a feminist position, although her experience of the clash between family and workplace demands has diluted the pure ideology she once embraced.
When she began the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, which made her a household name, Phyllis Schlafly had already distinguished herself in the Republican Party by consistently urging it toward conservatism. The ERA, a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to guarantee equal rights for women, seemed well on its way to succeeding when Schlafly launched the National Committee to Stop ERA, in 1972. Framing the amendment as a product of radical feminism that would lead to women in the military, gay marriage, taxpayer-funded abortions and an end to widows’ pensions, Schlafly campaigned for more than a decade to ensure that it finally failed.
Schlafly continues to be a powerful conservative force and frequently denounces Democrats in the political sphere, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she habitually critiques. Schlafly ridiculed a feminist interpretation of Clinton’s failed bid to lead the Democratic presidential ticket in the 2008 election, declaring that the former first lady failed to “crack the ‘glass ceiling’ (an architectural figment of feminist imagination)” because “she simply is not likable.” A tremendously popular secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, Clinton has worked to reintroduce the ERA. Its passage would surely give her the last word over Schlafly.
One woman who thinks women can have it all is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg blames systemic workplace discrimination for some of the disparity in salary and rank between men and women in high-powered corporate jobs. In addition, she contends, women often sell their accomplishments short and, perhaps most damaging, start pulling back from the workplace well in advance of having children—i.e., many stop reaching for new opportunities in anticipation of having to take maternity leave in the future. Sandberg instead encourages women to “lean in” to their jobs for as long as possible. This is precisely the point with which Phyllis Schlafly takes issue, calling Sandberg a “typical feminist” who discourages “smart young women” from planning ahead for having a family. Schlafly warns, too, of a terrible, empty fate that awaits careerist women who put their work life ahead of everything else: “Too many women come to their senses only after age 40 and then find it’s too late to have a husband or children,” she says. “Feminism is at war with Mother Nature, and Mother Nature is still winning.”
Before publishing Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg gave the 2011 commencement address at Barnard College, where she urged the all-female graduating class to “close the ambition gap” by thinking big, not underselling their achievements, and making their mates full partners, instead of getting stuck with the double duty of a full-time job and the lion’s share of housework and child care. International law expert Anne-Marie Slaughter may agree with Sandberg’s mission to stimulate women to rise in the workforce ranks, but in her essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” Slaughter takes issue with much of Sandberg’s advice. She refers to the commencement-speech talking points as the “half-truths we hold dear,” such as the notion that work-family balance is a “function of personal determination.” She charges Sandberg with sounding a “note of reproach” to women who position their careers to make room for family. Most parents’ problems are far more prosaic—such as making “school schedules match work schedules”—than the ones Sandberg identifies, Slaughter says, joining the chorus of voices critical of women of privilege who claim to “have it all.” With that, Slaughter returned to her tenured position at Princeton University.
Everybody knows women have no sense of humor. Christopher Hitchens confirmed it in his 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Against such odds, Tina Fey has established a successful career in performing, writing and producing comedy, the only profession, she once remarked, in which an “obedient white girl from the suburbs” counts as a diversity candidate. As the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live, Fey worked to tone down the testosterone in the largely white male domain of the writers’ office and secure more sketches for women. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg performed a similar task at her male-dominated workplace in Silicon Valley. She is credited with transforming company founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “frat house” into a decent work environment for women. We should expect these trailblazers to receive support from other women, but solidarity seemed scarce when New York Times writers Maureen Dowd and Jodi Kantor condemned Sandberg’s Lean In movement, and pop singer Taylor Swift charged Fey and fellow SNL alumna Amy Poehler with antifeminism in response to their teasing at the Golden Globes. “It was a lighthearted joke,” Fey responded—but Swift could be forgiven for not understanding it, given that women, well, aren’t funny.
Long after women became contenders for workforce success, they remained barred from certain advantages the “old boys’ network” conferred. Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Tina Fey at Saturday Night Live both entered male-dominated professions and learned they had to look out for their own. Sandberg’s Lean In Circles, small groups of women who meet to discuss their goals, offer networking opportunities for women. But women still have to “lean in” for access to traditionally male, business-oriented social gatherings, such as poker games and rounds of golf at exclusive courses.
The rights women enjoy to attend formerly male-only universities and to enter certain clubs and establishments were hard-won by activists seeking the equal opportunity that comes with access. Recognizing that the barroom, like the golf course, is often an informal extension of the boardroom, where decisions about policy and promotions are made, women’s rights advocate Karen DeCrow and her contemporaries staged “sip-ins” at men-only bars in the late 1960s. McSorley’s Old Ale House, a New York City institution and legendary male enclave, became one of the best-known symbols of this battle, only grudgingly changing its door policy in 1970, when a court-backed mayoral decree rendered such gender discrimination illegal.
Sheryl Sandberg and Ursula Burns, successful officers at major technology companies, are often compared to each other, but they diverge significantly in leadership style. Burns credits the successful turnaround of her company, Xerox, to her putting an end to a corporate culture suffering from “terminal niceness.” She encouraged her staff members to stop being polite and instead be honest with comments and criticism. Burns also rejected advice about curbing her own fast, informal and frank way of speaking, choosing to remain true to the character traits that got her to the top—including letting colleagues know she doesn’t have all the answers. “I think that they have to see you sweat,” she says.
Sandberg’s leadership leans a little more toward sprezzatura (i.e., nonchalance). Although she urges women to be more assertive as they “lean in” to their careers, Sandberg sometimes leads with an invisible hand. Katherine Losse, an early Facebook employee, says Sandberg helped change the culture nearly seamlessly and without overt conflict. Sandberg confided to Losse, “You see, I’m so good that I make things happen and no one even knows about them.”
When Anne-Marie Slaughter started struggling with dual roles as the director of policy planning in the State Department and the mother of two adolescent boys, she commented to a female colleague that she was considering writing an article about how women at the top level of professional life can’t maintain work-home parity. Since Slaughter, a successful lawyer and academic, was a feminist role model, the friend implored her not to, but Slaughter wasn’t dissuaded. Controversial since its publication, her piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” contends that women who tell other women they can have any career and a family are perpetuating the myth that the demands of both can be managed easily and successfully. Ursula Burns, the first African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, calls the debate about “having it all” a lot of “BS.” Nobody has it all, says Burns, a mother of two who predicts a “tidal wave” of female CEOs in coming years. A work-family balance takes a life span to achieve, she argues, at times tipping toward work and at others toward family. Moreover, it holds career women who are also parents to a higher standard than anybody else.
Hillary Rodham Clinton ended her bid for the 2008 presidential ticket on a hopeful note: “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Clinton passed the banner to Barack Obama, who became president, shattering the invisible barrier African Americans face in the corporate and public sectors. Obama appointed Clinton secretary of state, one of the highest-ranking U.S. government positions, the glass ceiling to which had been shattered in 1997 by Madeleine Albright, as the first woman to hold the position; in 2001 by Colin Powell, as the first African American; and in 2005 by Condoleezza Rice, as the first African American woman. In this instance, the public sector seems ever so slightly ahead of the curve than corporate America, which appointed the first female African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Ursula Burns, only in 2009. Forbes magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” lists Burns and Clinton in the top 20.
The first woman to be elected president, whether she be Hillary Rodham Clinton or someone else, will not only smash the ultimate glass ceiling, she will, as commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces, climb higher in the military than any woman has. Despite serving in every major American war, military women have generally met with dead-end career options and systemic sexual harassment. The public got an inkling of the men’s club atmosphere after the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, where 120 servicemen were alleged to have assaulted 83 women and seven men over a weekend symposium for fighter pilots and their colleagues in Las Vegas. Senate hearings in 2013 confirmed that sexual assaults in the military have not abated, nor have the armed forces proved effective at handling them.
Officially barred from combat roles, women were ineligible for the promotions that went with them, even when they fought on the front lines. In 2013, however, the defense department announced it would open nearly all positions and units to female personnel. With the new access, women will finally have the opportunity to crack the “khaki ceiling” and challenge the hypermasculine military culture from the top down.